Down Under isn’t always baking hot. Christine Austin tries some delicate flavours from cooler climes.
Think of Australia and its 40C heat during the Melbourne Open tennis and the impression is that all of Australia is baking hot. Surely that accounts for the high alcohol wines and those big lush flavours? But there are parts of this vast continent which are distinctly chilly and the Mornington Peninsula is one of them.
Head east out of Melbourne and then south and within an hour you are in the chic yacht and beach house area of the Mornington Peninsular. Turn off the main road, which even in summer-time can be remarkably quiet, and you are plunged into the dense, beautiful woodland of a national forest. There are large houses tucked behind tall hedges, but there are open areas of farmland too, with steep-sided hills and a distinctly rural style.
This used to be a fruit-growing area but it has developed into an up-market place to grow grapes. Those hills catch the sea breeze and so temperatures stay low. Plant your grapes on the right hillside and you can get a three-week delay in ripening from the warmer bottom of the slope to the top. It is this kind of control which can extend the growing season and develop brighter fruit flavours and more complexity. This is the region of elegant Pinot Noir and restrained, citrusy Chardonnay.
These are wines that can hold their own in an international market against the best that Burgundy and New Zealand can offer, each with their own style, but a million miles away from some of the overblown flavours that come out of warmer Aussie vineyards.
This is not the place of vast wall-to-wall vineyards. They are small, individual plots, often organic since this is a region with a strong ecological ethos, and the grapes are likely to have been made into wine within a very short distance of the vineyard.
That is how the winery Ten Minutes by Tractor got its name. Three families were each working their own vineyards and encountering high costs from the low yields that this region gives. They banded together so they could share equipment and experience and tried to think of a name for their joint venture. That was when they realised that they were all within a 10 minute drive of each other, and the name has stuck. Now owned by just one person, Martin Spedding, this 34 hectare estate delivers some of Australia’s best Pinot Noir flavours. Individual pinot clones are hand harvested and are in the winery within the shortest possible time. Open-top fermenters give the winery a Burgundian feel, and the grapes are de-stemmed, but not crushed to allow them to gently release their juice under pressure from the rest of the batch. A period known as cold soak allows the natural yeast population to develop and the aromatics to be released.
It is this kind of gentle, natural winemaking that steers this wine to the top of the quality charts. French oak aging adds finesse and complexity, but then the traditional approach ends. Ten Minutes by Tractor is sealed with a screw cap so that all that hard work is not ruined by a faulty cork.
Ten Minutes produce a range of wines. The Estate Pinot Noir 2009 (Majestic online £35) offers elegant juicy, cherry fruit and layers of spice, with a burst of raspberry and tobacco. Moving up to the 10X and the single vineyard wines brings more intensity and an additional perfume element which is particularly obvious in Judd Vineyard which I would be happy to line up against a single vineyard Beaune.
Ten Minutes by Tractor wines are gradually moving into the UK market but are still difficult to find in our area. Look out for them on restaurant lists, such as Hotel du Vin and The Fat Duck.
Robert Oatley could realistically be credited with pioneering Australian wine into the UK. Decades ago he established the Rosemount brand which was genuinely good in those days and noted for its distinctive bottle and label. He has now moved into a whole raft of other businesses, as well as international competitive sailing, winning the Sydney to Hobart race four times. But he still has time to run a wine business, Robert Oatley Vineyards.
Much smaller than his previous wine brands, this wine company matches the grape to the vineyard, even if that means his Pinot is sourced in Mornington and his Chardonnay from Western Australia. The result is a carefully tailored range of wines, precisely focussed on each varietal that reflect the character of each region. Bon Coeur in Masham (01765 688200) stocks Robert Oatley Signature Pinot Noir 2010 which shows vibrant, juicy cherry and wild strawberry fruit with a gentle savoury finish.
Even Marks & Spencer has found the unique flavours of Mornington Peninsula difficult to resist. They currently list Red Claw Mornington Peninsular Pinot Noir 2011 (£17.99) produced by Tom Carson at Yabby Lake. Tom has spent several vintages winemaking in Burgundy so it is hardly surprising that Red Claw shows the herb-shot gamey, gutsy style of quality Pinot. This wine may not be in your local store since the quantity is limited but it is available online at marksandspencer.com.
Mornington also manages to produce some very elegant and restrained Chardonnays and of these Kooyong stands out for its sheer brilliance of flavour. The site, at 100m above sea level is just enough to catch the breezes and have excellent drainage. The vineyard is split into five distinct zones and clonal planting ensures that each zone produces wines that express the character of its site. Clonale Kooyong 2012 (£16.95, Field and Fawcett, 01904 489073) is an Australian Chardonnay unlike any you will have tasted before. With crunchy apple fruit, and lemon zest it manages minerals and creamy tones, while staying lively focussed and delicious. Restore your faith in Aussie Chardy with this wine.